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Home > Smoking Fish

Smoking Fish

The fisherman's catch, if properly preserved, can be a welcome addition to family meals over a period of several weeks or months. Smoked fish can be stored for a long time and smoking is an excellent way to preserve fish that you don't plan to eat right away. Fish is smoked as it dries over a smoldering fire. Wood smoke adds flavor and color; the brining process helps to preserve the fish.

Smoking Methods
There are two general methods of smoking fish: hot-smoking and cold-smoking.

Hot-smoking (also called barbecuing or kippering) requires a short brining time and smoking temperatures of 90F for the first 2 hours and 150F for an additional 4-8 hours. Hot-smoked fish are moist, lightly salted, and fully cooked, but they will keep in the refrigerator for only a few days.

Cold-smoking requires a longer brining time, lower temperature (80-90F) and extended smoking time (1-5 days or more of steady smoking). Cold-smoked fish contain more salt and less moisture than hot-smoked fish. If the fish has been sufficiently cured, it will keep in the refrigerator for several months.

Smoking Tips
Any fish can be smoked, but species high in fat (oil) such as salmon and trout are recommended because they absorb smoke faster and have better texture than lean fish, which tend to be dry and tough after smoking.

Use seasoned non-resinous woods: hickory, oak, apple, maple, birch, beech, or alder. Avoid: pine, fir, spruce, etc. or green woods. If heavier smoke flavor is desired, add moist sawdust to the heat source throughout the smoking process.

Control heat by adjusting air flow.

Control temperature:
Hot-smoking--90F for the first 2 hours; 150F for remaining smoking time
Cold-smoking--80-90F for 1-5 days or more

Preparing Fish For Smoking
Use only freshly-caught fish that have been kept clean and cold. Fish that have been handled carelessly or stored under improper conditions will not produce a satisfactory finished product. Do not use bruised, broken, or otherwise damaged flesh.

If you catch your fish, clean and pack them in ice before starting home. When you get home, store the fish in the refrigerator until you are ready to prepare them for smoking.

Different fish species generally require specific preparation methods. Salmon are split (backbone removed); bottom fish filleted; herring headed and gutted, and smelt dressed. The following preparation steps can be applied to any fish:

1) Remove scales by scraping against the grain with the dull edge of a knife.
2) Remove head, fins, tail, viscera.
3) Wash body cavity with running cold water to remove all traces of blood and kidney tissue (dark red mass along the backbone).
4) Split the fish by cutting through the rib bones along the length of one side of the backbone.
5) For large fish, remove the backbone by cutting along the other side of the backbone to produce two fillets or boneless sides. For small fish, the backbone can be left attached to one of the sides.
6) Cut the sides of large fish into uniform pieces about 1½ inches thick and 2 inches wide. Small fish halves can be brined and smoked in one piece.

Preparing Brine
Prepare a brine of 3½ cups table salt in 1 gallon of cold water in a plastic, stainless steel, or crockery container. Red or white wine can be substituted for a portion or all of the water, if desired. Stir the salt until a saturated solution is formed.

Spices such as black pepper, bay leaves, seafood seasoning, or garlic, as well as brown sugar, may be added to the brine depending on your preference.

Use 1 gallon of brine for every 4 pounds of fish. Brine fish in the refrigerator, if possible.

Keep the fish covered with brine throughout the brining period. A heavy bowl can be floated on the brine to keep the fish submersed, but do not pack the fish so tightly that the brine cannot circulate around each piece.

1) To cold-smoke fish, follow steps 1-6 under "Preparing Fish for Smoking."
2) Brine ½-inch-thick fillets for ½ hour; 1-inch-thick fillets for 1 hour; and 1½-inch-thick fillets for 2 hours.
3) Brining times can be lengthened if the cold-smoked fish are to be preserved for long periods of time.
4) After brining, rinse the fish briefly in cold running water.
5) Place the fish skin-side down on greased racks in a cool shady, breezy place to dry. The fish should dry for 2 to 3 hours or until a shiny skin or pellicle has formed on the surface. A fan will speed pellicle formation.
6) Place the fish in a homemade or commercial smoker. The temperature of the smoker should be kept at about 80F, and should never exceed 90F. If a thermometer is not available, the temperature may be tested by hand. If the air in the smoke-house feels distinctly warm, the temperature is too high.
7) Smoke the fish until its surface is an even brown. Small fish that are to be kept 2 weeks or less may be ready in 24 hours. Salmon and other large fish will require 3 to 4 days and nights of steady smoking. To store longer than 2 weeks, smoke all fish a minimum of five days; for larger fish, at least a week or longer.

The smoker should not produce a lot of smoke during the first 8 to 12 hours if the total curing time is 24 hours, or for the first 24 hours if the curing time is longer. When the first part of the smoking ends, build up a dense smoke and maintain it for the balance of the cure.

If cold-smoked fish has been brined for at least 2 hours and smoked for at least 5 days, it will keep in the refrigerator for several months.


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